I’ve been thinking quite a lot about how I rate books recently*. I think that, as of 2015, I’m going to stop using the five-star rating system, at least for full reviews. It isn’t nearly detailed enough for what I want to say. Books I absolutely love will continue to get five stars on Goodreads, because I want to demonstrate my enthusiasm, and books I can’t stand will still get one star (just in case I block them out of my mind and am tempted to pick it up again), but other than that, I’ve found that I mostly seem to give three-star ratings and that doesn’t really convey everything that I think about a book.
As an example, I thought I would try and write a review for a book I recently finished but don’t entirely know how to review. I read Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo, published in 2002, largely as part of a drive to read more translated fiction (original title Abril rojo), and I was fascinated by it–but fascinated is not exactly the same as thrilled, and it’s certainly not the same as gushing.
In brief, Red April is a murder mystery set in Peru during national elections. A pedantic, pencil-pushing bureaucrat finds himself reluctantly investigating a murder that may or may not be linked to the type of terrorist activity he thought had died out years ago. Initially, it seems as though he is foiled at every turn, but as he eventually begins to make progress, the situation becomes darker and more sinister. It should be noted that later in this post, there will be discussion of rape and sexual violence, so if that’s something that you don’t want to read about, please feel free to close this review and come back next time, when I will be reviewing the far cheerier Name of the Wind. There will also be one or two spoilers, though not everything, and I think that this really is a book that you need to go into without knowing the end–so be warned–but I also think that it’s difficult to get at the core of the book without discussing crucial details of the plot.
There is so much for me to admire about this book. I read a lot of crime fiction, but I don’t often review it, because–although I love it–it can get a bit samey. The protagonist is, almost inevitably, a middle-aged man with a tragically broken marriage, an alcohol issue, and a need to solve cases due to a lack of other diversion. In Red April, Roncagliolo takes this stock character and flips the stereotype very intelligently on its head. Prosecutor Chalcatana, whilst he is a middle-aged man from a broken marriage with a general lack of life activities, is very far away from those two-a-penny clichés.
A thread running throughout the book is Chalcatana’s relationship with his mother, for whom he retains an unhealthy obsession despite the fact that she is dead–even laying out clothes for her and going into her room to talk to her every morning. Equally, in stark contrast to the cynicism common to amateur detective characters, Chalcatana is breathtakingly naive. His utter failure to understand that corruption can and does exist, his slavish devotion to the Peruvian justice system (and in system and in routine, more generally), is almost–but not quite–impossible to believe. He is a difficult character to like, or even to sympathise with.
However, Roncagliolo expends a lot of narrative time and effort on Chalcatana’s character development and back story. I gradually found myself understanding him, and even, despite myself, liking him. Much of the plot centres on Chalcatana doggedly hammering away at officials to take the case seriously, more because he has a deep-rooted need to get his paperwork accurately filed than because of any integrity or hero complex. Throughout the story, the reader is led to believe that this murder case, which he has stumbled into unintentionally and unwillingly, will be the making of Chalcatana–that he will finally grow up and “be a man”.
For example, his interactions with his mother decrease in frequency, obsequiousness, and general creepiness, as he concurrently builds a friendship with a young waitress in a café. Maturing into manhood through contact with violence is a relatively common, albeit rather tedious, theme for a novel–so that was the route I was expecting the plot to take. I found myself rooting for Chalcatana, and for the system–for the hope that maybe, just maybe, doggedness and pedantry and the need to get boxes ticked would be the unexpected triumph of the novel. It seemed more and more likely, and then–
At the climax of the novel (and here come the spoilers), Chalcatana is exposed to such graphic and horrific violence that he finally realises what the reader has known all along–the system is corrupt, broken, and deeply flawed. As Chalcatana reels from the explicit and gory scene in front of him, his world begins to crumble–and we realise that we haven’t been seeing him grow into manhood and learn to buck the system, stand on his own two feet etc., but have instead been watching him detach from his faith in formality–the last thing that was keeping him sane. He runs to Edith, his girlfriend, for comfort–but instead of accepting the comfort she offers him, he rapes her.
I try to avoid reading rape scenes in books whenever I guess that they’re coming, and I’ve certainly never read one narrated from the rapist’s point of view before. It was so gut-wrenchingly awful that it made me want to claw off my own skin–but I’ve also never seen anyone convey, so successfully, that rape is a violent, abusive act–about power and control, and nothing to do with sexual desire. Edith becomes a thing, a object for Chalcatana to crush, now that he feels stripped of the authority he had had within the system. (It should be noted that Edith is never dehumanised by the narrative the way that she is by Chalcatana; she is always written respectfully, as a real, three-dimensional person). Once he is done with her, he runs away, and the remainder of the book deals with his rapid descent into rambling insanity.
This is my point about reviewing. I respect this book so much. The horror of the closing chapter has stuck with me for a month. It so effectively shows that Chalcatana’s tragic childhood contributed to the atrocities he ended up committing, without ever falling into the trap of excusing those atrocities as inevitable. It is intelligently written. There is so much shown about the incredible power–both constructive and destructive–of mother-son relationships (often ignored in literature, in favour of mother-daughter and father-son relationships). For example, in addition to Chalcatana’s obsessive affection for his mother, there are occasional, short passages of wailing, disjointed grief, which appear to be from the perspective of the mother of the murdered man. The hopelessness of a corrupt justice system, the powerless anger it must necessarily provoke in its victims, is perfectly depicted. There is so much that is good about the book.
And yet, for all that, I only rated it three stars on Goodreads–because I didn’t enjoy it. Despite the excellent writing, despite the strength of the themes, despite the fact that I cannot see any other way that Roncagliolo could have ended the book whilst keeping the power of the narrative–I couldn’t rate it more highly. The plot was too slow at the beginning. The secondary characters were relatively flat and uninteresting. Although I saw the point of the passages from the grieving mother’s perspective, the total lack of grammar and spelling meant that they made no emotional difference to me–they were too difficult to read, and I couldn’t absorb any information from them. More than all of this, it just left such a revolting taste in my mouth. It was right that the book ended with a sort of hopeless cynicism, but I just don’t like hopeless, cynical books, regardless of how well they’re written. I need the bleakness to be cut through with a little light. I don’t want to have to shower three times because of how grubby I feel.
It’s so difficult to separate “I didn’t like this book” from “this book had no literary merit”. Those are completely different statements. It doesn’t seem fair to rate such an accomplished book only three stars–but it’s also disingenuous to pretend that I enjoyed it, simply because I recognise the talent that went into writing it, and it seems dishonest to give it a rating as high as three stars. So, from now on, no star ratings with my reviews–just collections of my thoughts.
How do you review or rate books? I’d love to know what different people think.
*This is in response to the #BeCritical discussion that was happening on BookTube last month. I didn’t really want to jump into the fray whilst words like “worthless” were being thrown around on both sides, but I think it’s important to discuss these things–just maybe with a bit of empathy. Here are a couple of my favourite videos about reviewing critically.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeW41v2TsJ4&list=UUUik_Il09rb1KK9-aNHXEyw by Climb the Stacks
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YENyAWdqak by Karina E. (This blog post actually started out as a direct response to the video, but it became a large and unwieldy essay, and I had to trim it as best I could).